The Cold War, which provides the historical context for Steven Spielberg’s new film BRIDGE OF SPIES, is one of modern history’s more stupid phases (BRIDGE OF SPIES is based on real historical events), a Thanksgiving Day parade of hypocrites high on reefer-madness paranoia about the other guy. That era gave us doctrines, an arms race, the constant threat of mutually-assured destruction and a movie franchise by the name of JAMES BOND.
The human and psychological costs of the Cold War were enormous. Who were the millions of people suffering, mostly in silence, from the Wall when Berlin being split in two, the hundreds, if not thousands of Stasi-led investigations, the executions, imprisonments, the forfeiture of due process? So when an individual stood out above the rest to accomplish something based on a simple moral grounds and not political posturing, it reminded us of our humanity.
Anyone born in the forties will remember the news stories about Gary Powers, the U.S. pilot whose U2 plane went down in Russia after just one reconnaissance sortie. Powers was sentenced to ten years in Russia. He was used as leverage by the Russians in an exchange with one of their own, namely, Rudolph Abel (played to perfection by British actor Mark Rylance) arranged for by the CIA. But not just.
Abel had about four years of his sentence before he was exchanged for Powers. The other piece of the story is that of James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who get saddled with the thankless (russian spies in the sixties were like our muslim terrorists nowadays–no normally-constituted human being can stand the fuckers) job of representing Abel as the Soviet spook gets pushed (expeditiously, as it turns out) through the courts system.
Donovan–no pushover, he–is hesitant at first in accepting the assignment, citing his experience as a mere, but highly-gifted, insurance lawyer. He comes around, however, he puts his moral imperative to save not one but two Americans (there’s a Ph.D. student from Princeton who got arrested in Berlin and whom Donovan will add to the list of demands when negotiating the release of Abel with Russia).
Hanks is right for the role of the increasingly-sympathetic attorney. I’m always struck, however, by the ambiguity of this actor. Hanks has little charisma but the naive humanitarian trait in spades. Hanks is the good guy and our world could always use more good guys. But the good guy persona doth not a formidable actor maketh.
Principal photography for BRIDGE OF SPIES began in the fall of 2014 in Brooklyn, New York.
Actor Mark Rylance (55, born in Kent, England) is diabolically good in the role of the Soviet spy. He’s walked into the Abel character and inhabits its every nook, cranny, literally disappearing in it. Indeed, that’s something Rylance (a highly regarded theater actor in his home country) is able to do quite well, whereas there’s always a bit of the ol’ me that sticks out when Hanks plays a role.
Spielberg is aided by an airtight script put together by no fewer than two Coen brothers who co-wrote it with British playwright and screenwriter Mark Charman (but the latter conceived and wrote the original script, with the Coens joining him later). The writing is invisible, the characters speak believable lines, and the Abel character is imbued particularly with some amusing phrases. Rylance plays Abel in the most underwhelming manner possible. He’s got the entire U.S. government crawling up his backside but he’s calm and composed. When Donovan asks him several times whether he’s not the least bit scared and why he doesn’t show any emotion Rylance’s Abel answers, “would it help?” The wry humor is spot on.
Grateful to him for this very pleasurable lesson in history. May we never forget what a Cold War looks like. Spielberg has directed an immense film, one that I urge you to go watch, too.
Ali Naderzad is reachable via Twitter @alinaderzad. He’s reported for Screen Comment from the Cannes Festival since 2006.